Ahead of next week’s Canon PhotoMarathon, two successful photographers recall how the event gave them their big break
Phan Phearith knew that he wanted to become a photographer when he was in high school. He just wasn’t quite sure how to do it.
“I had the money to buy a camera, but I didn’t know where to learn photography,” the 37-year-old Phearith, who also goes by the name Miller, said. “There was no photography school.”
Today, the 2011 Canon PhotoMarathon winner – a tie-clad marketing manager by day – has held a few of his own exhibitions, and has seen nearly 250 students pass through his photography classes at Canon Imaging Academy.
The annual PhotoMarathon, organised by authorised Canon agent i-Qlick, has for the past five years served as one of a growing number of opportunities for fledgling Cambodian photographers to take their interest to new heights.
Professional interest in photography among young people has increased in Cambodia in recent years, helped along by social media platforms where they can freely showcase their work.
Ninety-five per cent of PhotoMarathon participants are Cambodian, according to Liwen Tan, i-Qlick’s regional marketing manager.
The contest is a test of ability and creativity, as well as speed – on the day of the PhotoMarathon there are three photos to snap on different themes, each with a three-hour time limit. Each category has six winners, including three under-18 students.
In this year’s contest, on October 4, a record 1,000 participants will compete for 18 Canon DSLRs and spots at a photo workshop in Siem Reap, where one participant will be selected as a grand prize winner.
It wasn’t until after completing his business degree that Phearith picked up his first camera and started looking for instruction in a decidedly informal setting – on YouTube. By viewing a steady stream of photography videos in his spare time, he gained a solid grasp on technique.
In 2011, Phearith started taking classes from an AFP photojournalist at the French Institute and claimed first prize at the PhotoMarathon the same year for a photo under the theme People of Cambodia.
After winning, he travelled to Thailand and Vietnam for photography workshops and began exhibiting his work.
Recent projects have taken him to Siem Reap and beyond. His blurred Abstract Painting series focuses on street traffic and its dangers in Temple Town. Another focuses on the city’s rubbish scavengers.
“What I really like about photography is that it can be used as a message to educate people and show them things,” he said. “I want to connect people.”
It also inspired Phearith to pursue education more literally – he became an instructor at i-Qlick in 2013. Most of his students are young and working in another industry.
For Phearith, it is rewarding to watch his students successfully pursue an interest for which he found little encouragement when he was their age.
“I started teaching students because I wanted to share my knowledge about basic photography with the next generation,” he said. “Now, I can see that photography in Cambodia is growing up.”
Vong Sopheak, last year’s PhotoMarathon winner, is only 22. At first he faced similar barriers to entry as those experienced by Phearith.
“I loved photography, but I didn’t know where to go,” he said. Eventually he, like his predecessor, landed in a class at the French Institute.
He took third prize in 2013 and second place in 2014 for the photo he took under the “Generations” theme.
His winning photograph, which he sketched out on paper first, is a portrait of two women — a made-up young woman who faces away from the camera and a wrinkled older one with a strong gaze trained on the camera lens.
The image is striking, and suggestive of Sopheak’s already burgeoning talent.
“I learned a lot from the contest … I really wanted to make another good photograph. It pushed me to do that,” Sopheak said.
He’s certainly had the chance to do so. Sopheak was selected as the 2014 grand prize winner in Siem Reap, sending him to a workshop with international instructors in Japan in January.
Sopheak already has a bright career at a young age – he does freelance commercial work alongside his own pursuits in documentary photography, supported by his family and friends.
He emphasises the importance of passion and the concepts behind his work. “It is a photograph,” he said, “but there should be a story inside.”
And, like Phearith, Sopheak believes there is power in the opportunities he has been granted. He echoes a desire to give back: “In the future I want to share, I want to teach.”